Why I Care About Authentic Writing

What’s Really New? My first year writers are drafting formal argument essays this week – a department requirement – and many students were nervous about this work after the fun we’ve had writing about games (see also RPGs and Social Contracts) and even conducting a rhetorical analysis of a game. But I challenged my students to choose an argument topic inspired by a problem found in their real life and as we explored those problems and focused on topics my students were on fire – about their topic and the topics of their classmates. Last week I asked my students “what needs fixing” after we had been writing about these topics and doing a lot of foundational work and research in preparation for our draft and all I can say is Wow! When did your students last WOW you with their writing? My students delight me on the regular because we engage in authentic writing.

What’s New? Yesterday my first year college writers spent the class contemplating the rhetorical context for their This I Believe American Creeds. They were invited to choose their audience and the form that best suited their audience and purpose as long as their form could still achieve the essence of the This I Believe essay. My students are contemplating poems, letters, monologues, and social media posts. What delighted me the most about our class time was the quick shift in mood and focus. Worry about grades and their first college essays were replaced with curiosity and challenge as students made choices based on their interests and comfort level as well as their knowledge of their audience. And I was reminded again of the power of authentic writing. Thanks Emily Dickinson for providing the inspiration “tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

An additional update, one unit later. As my students draft their rhetorical analysis essays I challenged them to use mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors to frame their arguments. While I hoped to open their eyes to the many ways that their chosen books, movies, and television shows could be examined, I also specifically directed them to think about who specifically they wanted to invite into the world of this story and what they wanted that audience to learn from the experience. There are so many exciting ways to help students develop an authentic audience and purpose for their writing. How are you opening up your classroom to authentic writing experiences?

The semester is over and again and again my students’ reflections celebrate the importance of authentic writing to their development as humans, writers and rhetoricians, and critical thinkers. It should not surprise anyone that writing about topics deeply important to them individually will have an impact on students from beginning to end. However, I am continually surprised, even after years of reading student reflections about their writing, how important it is to students that they are able to write about their journey as writers as well as humans. Authentic writing is essential to the growth and development of writers and that is a hill I will die on.

Original: Authentic writing is central to my praxis and pandemic teaching has only made it more important to me. As an educator who will finish her career teaching either in a pandemic or working with students whose educational experience was formed by the pandemic (currently both, just saying), my position is that we all need to care more about authentic writing. I care about authentic writing in my classroom because it engages my students individually and collectively in work that interests us and matters to us. This has always been true, but now more than ever we all need to care about authentic writing.

I am a firm believer in #authenticwriting which includes writing ideas and purposes that are important to the writer as well as writing for someone other than a teacher or test. 

Logbooks and #Ungrading: Creating a writing studio

Even before the pandemic broke our brains, the attention economy wrought havoc on our ability to focus which is one reason why authentic writing always mattered. But pandemic and broken brains aside, I do not know why I personally (and we collectively) have wasted so much time and space on inauthentic writing tasks. Authentic writing should always be your go-to move no matter what you are teaching (in the writing classroom or beyond). I have never understood the compulsion to create assignments that lead to disposable writing. Why do so many writing instructors want to teach their students that writing doesn’t matter? That is exactly what happens when you assign inauthentic disposable writing. In the waning days of the hardest semester I think authentic writing might be the only thing that motivates my class community to keep moving forward. I also know from student reflections that our focus on authentic writing helps writers discover or recover a love of writing as they engage with writing that matters to them and their community. #AuthenticWriting is essential to the process of making writers and that is my mission. If you are involved in teaching writing then authentic writing is the most powerful tool available to you.

Authentic Writing In My Classes

Authentic writing is not one thing. It is a mindset and a guiding principle. What does authentic writing look like in my first year writing classes? In Writing I and Writing II my first year college writers kick off with a This I Believe narrative argument. Many students are very enthusiastic about these essays as they are firmly grounded in the writer’s lived experience and values. Our next essay for both Writing I and Writing II is a rhetorical analysis and most students are very invested in analyzing a text they care about to understand both the appeal and message of that text. Both writing experiences offer students agency and choice, but even more important are focused on topics that interest and engage the writer — and again their community. Just yesterday in class we also discussed how much fun it is to belong to a community of writers engaged in projects that excite and interest them. Belonging to a community of writers is fun and exciting. That is the power of #authenticwriting. The creative What If project that wraps up our Writing I work challenges students to write about their lives and experiences as well as hopes and dreams. Is there anything more authentic? In Writing II we use the values and interests that come out of the narrative argument and rhetorical analysis essays to first write arguments and then create/hack games that will inspire conversations about solutions for the problems we care about.

Is That Really Authentic?

There are some who push back against my open definition of #authenticwriting as writing that includes ideas and purposes important to the writer. Naysayers argue that too many real writing scenarios involve writing that is not personal or important to the writer. Bunk. Those writers have exercised their personal agency by taking a job in a specific industry for a specific employer. Maybe they don’t hold the position they are writing but they do support their employer and/or industry. Defense attorneys do not always believe in the innocence of their clients but they do believe in the system and justice. My students are in a required class that most do not want to take because they have had many negative previous experiences with writing. Far too many of my students have had little opportunity to exercise their own agency or voice in the classroom and that is why I choose #authenticwriting. Authentic writing helps my students believe in the power and magic of writing.

For most of my teaching career I have been concerned with the issue of transfer (the process of applying acquired knowledge to new situations). I teach a required writing class intended to prepare students for writing in college and beyond. Inauthentic writing assignments that are clearly disposable to both writer and teacher bear much of the blame for the fact that despite years of writing instruction many students graduate high school and arrive in college with a fear and loathing of writing. Inauthentic disposable writing assignments do not make writers and do not help students learn how to write. Authentic writing breaks that shameful cycle and shows students that writing matters and that writers wield power. Thanks to my use of #ungrading reflections, I know what my students are thinking about as they work and write. So many students report that they have never been encouraged to write about what matters to them before. Think about that for a moment. My goal is to develop writers and that is why I care about authentic writing.

Artwork by Mark van Laere on Flickr

Author: Deanna Mascle
#TeachingWriting and leading #NWP site @ Morehead State (KY): Passionate about #AuthenticWriting, #DeeperLearning, #PBL, #Ungrading, and #HyperDocs.

2 thoughts on “Why I Care About Authentic Writing

  1. Thank you for this powerful reflection on the power of authentic writing, Deanna.

    This –> “Far too many of my students have had little opportunity to exercise their own agency or voice in the classroom and that is why I choose #authenticwriting. Authentic writing helps my students believe in the power and magic of writing.”

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